Romney hopes to revise social policy

In 2004, Republicans engineered gay marriage initiatives in several states to encourage conservative turnout at the polls on the day of the presidential election. George W. Bush, in a tight race to win a second term, hoped “values voters” motivated by his social conservatism would swing the election. He won.

He was also criticized for being divisive and exploiting sensitive social issues for his political advantage.

How the times have changed. This year, another incumbent locked in a tight race for re-election is hoping to turn out supporters and swing voters by convincing them that his opponent is an extremist on social issues. This time, though, it is Democrats who are hoping social issues will play to their benefit.

President Obama’s campaign has manufactured a “war on women” that his Republican adversaries are supposedly waging, his Justice Department has targeted Republican-backed voter identification laws as somehow constituting a civil rights violation, and he has put out a video of “Girls” creator Lena Dunham talking about voting for Barack Obama for her “first time.”

The extent to which Obama and the Democrats have mocked Republicans on social issues reveals just how extreme they are, and they may have overestimated the electorate’s appetite for their social progressivism. This is no longer a party trying to keep the government out of the personal sphere but a party hoping to use government to advance progressive social goals. The Democrats are much more willing to utilize government in advancing their social agenda than Republicans.

For instance, the Obama administration has issued a mandate under the new health law that requires employers to cover contraception in their employee health benefits plans. This includes business owners, charities and colleges with religious objections. Catholic business owners have joined to challenge this requirement in federal court, and nonprofit organizations and colleges, including Notre Dame, have filed separate lawsuits.

Obama claims the issue is about contraception, but it isn’t. The mandate is an attack on our religious liberty. Mitt Romney wouldn’t do anything to restrict access to contraception, but he would repeal a health law that requires other people to provide it, even if they consciously object. The government shouldn’t prevent people from buying contraception. It shouldn’t force them to buy it, either.

The health law also allows individuals to use taxpayer-financed subsidies to buy health insurance plans that cover abortion. Abortion is indeed a very sensitive issue, but the Democrats undercut themselves when they argue the decision to abort a child is something the government shouldn’t be involved in and then pass laws that use the government’s taxing power to subsidize abortion coverage.

Democrats have gone from defending what they have long insisted is a right to actively celebrating a heinous and heart-wrenching procedure. In 2004, the Democratic platform called for making abortion “safe, legal and rare.” This year, the Democratic platform said women have the right to make decisions related to their pregnancy, including “a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay.” For those who can’t pay, taxpayers would presumably pick up the costs.

Again, even Americans who support abortion rights surely understand the stretch from defending the right to have a procedure to insisting on the right to have someone else pay for it.

Mitt Romney has said he opposes abortion but favors exceptions for cases of rape and incest. With Gallup showing that 47 percent of Americans consider themselves pro-choice and 46 percent consider themselves pro-life, that position is not as at odds with public opinion as the Obama campaign seems to think.

Romney and Paul Ryan have also said they would not reinstate the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevented gays and lesbians from openly serving in uniform.

But Romney and Ryan understand the debate over social issues encompasses much more than hot-button topics like abortion and gay marriage.

The choice in this election is between two very different visions of the role the state should play in civil society. One candidate wants to use the government to actively impose his political agenda on society. Another will trust in our society to harness virtue and protect us from an overbearing government.

Differences over abortion and contraception help illustrate this larger divide, but it is a much broader debate.

Defending our religious liberty and allowing the foundations of civil society – churches, synagogues, mosques, community groups, professional associations, etc. – to flourish is a much more compelling vision than subverting those institutions to the will of the government.

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